Mumma’s early encounters with John Cage and David Tudor, his work with them in the ONCE Festival and other situations primed him for his eventual work with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.
Merce Cunningham was one of the great American dance artists of the 20th century. Cunningham was born in Centralia, Washington in 1919. He started off learning tap dancing from a local teacher where his ear for rhythm and sense of timing were honed from an early age. He later attended the Cornish School in Seattle from 1937 to study acting and mime, but didn’t take to it. He loved the way dance could be ambiguous while also allowing for full expression of movement. Martha Graham had seen him dance during this time period and she invited him to join her company. It was through Graham that Cunnigham’s life intersected with Cage in something of a chance operation. Graham had needed a musical accompanist for her dancers. One of her pupil’s, Bonnie Bird, recommended composer Lou Harrison, who declined, but suggested in his place the young Cage. Cunningham and Cage met in 1938 and later became romantically involved, and life partners until Cage’s death in 1992.
Cunningham sometimes played in Cage’s percussion group at the time, and they had become quick friends. Over the subsequent years Merce loved to talk to John about ideas. As each of their personal situations evolved in art and life, Merce finally took the step of establishing his own dance company in 1953 and Cage came along Cage for the ride as companies music director. Cunnigham’s Company had many opportunities as it grew over the years. Cage’s own career continued with more and more in the late 60s and throughout the 70s. As each pursued their vision other musicians needed to step in to the role of director when Cage wasn’t available. Mumma and Behrman, among others, were natural choices, due to their friendship and affinity. Mumma states it was never very clear how he ended up working with the Cunningham Dance Company, but it was something he just drifted into through these associations.
In the 60s and 70s Cunningham’s troupe made increasing use of electronics and this was an area where Mumma’s expertise could shine. He was a perfect fit; primed by his dedicated work as a creative composer, a cunning electronic technician, and as someone for whom the collaborative mode was second nature. In Mumma’s work with Cunningham’s troupe he got a chance to use all of these aspects of his character and put them to the test on tours that tested the endurance and dedication of everyone involved. The programs often involved collaborative music making and separate choreography, the latter determined by chance operations. The musicians were free to draw from their personal repertoires, and combine it with original material.
The first major piece Mumma wrote for Cunningham’s company was Mesa in 1966 for the dance Place. He was already working on something with David Tudor, who worked regularly in the company, when this came about. Instead of starting over he decided to alter the work in progress to accommodate the commission. Tudor had gotten into playing the Bandoneon, a relative of the accordion and squeezebox that has become popular in Argentina. It became the perfect instrument for Mesa because of its wide frequency and dynamic range. The Bandoneon can also produce long sustained drones and sounds, just what Mumma for the monolith that was taking shape.
Like the geological feature after which it is named, Mesa, is a tectonic slab of music sustained at one level of thrust with occasional interruptions. He had thought of using tape for the piece, but the dynamic range he wanted couldn’t be contained with the tape. That was one concept for the piece. The other was his desire to use “an inharmonic frequency spectrum with extremes of sound density.” In the performace space the placement of different portions of the sound in different loudspeakers creates a spatial diffusion. The final mixing of the sound is in the ears of the listener.
To further extend the dynamic range of Tudor’s instrument and create the timbres he imagined Mumma needed to design a circuit. The piece represented a creative problem and a technical challenge. His electronics needed to be able to translate frequencies, equalize, and required the use of logic circuitry in tricky configurations to control musical continuity. It’s another composition where the circuit diagram and instructions are more of the score than notated music.
Mumma developed Voltage Controlled Attenuators (VCA) in collaboration with Dr. William Ribbens in Ann Arbor. These extended the range while also including envelope controls. Ribbens is a Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Aerospace Engineering at the University.
In performance six microphones are attached to the Bandoneon, three on each side. The microphones are different with each being sensitive to different frequency bands. As a way of “thickening the plot” and for other reasons Mumma fed one mic from each side into the other side of the circuit. Six channels of sound from one instrument source are being processed to create this massive place.
Using a logic circuit Mumma was able to route control signals and program signals to different channels during performance. He used a frequency shifter with equalization that processed parts of the sound determined by internal control signals or from Tudor playing the Bandoneon. The logic circuit itself determined the source and nature of the control signal.
Mumma used a multiplier to take portions of the spectrum and transform it by whole integers to further equalize the sounds. Phase and amplitude modulators also work with portions of the sound, gating parts of the spectrum transfer with the output from the multiplier. Further gates, formant modulators, pass band filters and other baroque electrical wizardry were also built into the circuit score of Mesa. In creating the piece he was setting up a cybersonic system.
The VCA also included delays that further shaped the envelope of the program signal. Mumma wanted to use very specific delays that were not possible with either electronic manipulation, or from a mechanical source, such as building a tape delay. Mumma writes, “the solution to this problem is inherent in the concept of MESA itself, since at this point in the system it is the envelope of the otherwise sustained sounds which is to be shaped. This is achieved by subjecting the VCA control signals to frequency-sensitive thermal-delay circuitry. The wide dynamic range of the VGA is due to special bias procedures.”
Every control signal for sound modification first comes from the Bandoneon. “Because the control signals are automatically derived from the sound materials themselves, I call the process, and the music, "cybersonic".”
What Mumma has created in Mesa is a situation where the Bandoneonist can play a duet with a piece of electronic circuitry. A third person, most often Mumma, in performance, tweaks the circuit live to override parts of the internal logic with an artist’s intuition.
One of the pieces by Mumma used by Cunnigham in a variety of settings including TV Rerun was his Telepos (1972). For this he made belts to be worn by the dancers that contained small accelerometers, a device that measures vibrations and accelerations in motion. The belts were also equipped with voltage controlled oscillators and a miniature UHF transmitter. Inspired by telemetry, or the transmission of device data that is read remotely at a different point of reception, the dancers made music by their movements “in a process similar to that encountered in space travel, undersea, or biomedical research.”
Mumma worked with the group for seven full seasons and also collaborated on works with individuals from the circle. He also continued to work with Cage. One such instance was as part of the creation of a soundtrack to an electronic game of chess.
Reunion was a big piece conceived by John Cage as a chess game to be played between himself and Marcel Duchamp and a second match with Teeny Duchamp. It had a collaborative musical element performed by Gordon Mumma, David Behrman, and David Tudor on an electronic chessboard designed by Lowell Cross. The chess board controlled certain aspects of the live electronic music.
Cage had first met Marcel in the early 1940’s when they were both in New York, but the meeting had been awkward, due to a blowup between Cage and Peggy Guggenheim, who had first introduced them. At that time Cage and his then-wife Xenia were being put up by Peggy after they had moved from Chicago. Cage took a gig at the Museum of Modern Art, when he also had a gig at Peggy’s new art gallery. She felt snubbed by him having a show she thought stole the spotlight from her presentation of his music in the city. At the time he was so in awe of Duchamp, he didn’t want to disturb him, but simply enjoyed in his presence.
In the winter of 1965-66 Cage’s circle and Duchamp’s overlapped again and they found themselves at the same parties. Cage had long been an admirer of Duchamp and they shared a number of sensibilities, one appreciating readymade objects and the appreciating readymade music of sound occurring everywhere in life. He wanted to reacquaint himself with Duchamp, but wasn’t sure how to go about it, until he asked Teeny if she thought Duchamp would tutor him in chess. She said to ask the man himself, and when he got the gumption to do so, Duchamp said yes.
He started to meet with Duchamp once a week to learn the game, and other social visits followed, including vacationing with the couple in Spain. Though he had used chess as a ruse to get to know the artist he admired, Cage was fascinated with the game and became a serious player. More often than not he lost to his teacher, who had played chess for decades.
In 1968 the idea for Reunion was hatched. According to Mumma it “descended upon us at the same time” and the exact source of it was obscured amongst the collaborators. At the time Cage was very interested in expanding the people with whom he collaborated beyond the group of musicians and electronic pioneers who had clustered around him and Cunningham.
Lowell Cross was one of the people Cage was interested in working with. At the time Cross was writing a thesis that explored the history of electronic music and electronic music studios from between 1948 and 1953, and Cage played a large role in his thesis. Cross was studying media and society under Marshall McLuhan at the University of Toronto, and also ethnomusicology with Mieczysław Koliński, and electronic music with Gustav Ciamaga and Myron Schaeffer.
Cage had been interested in Lowell’s work as an instrument builder, and had known about his device called the Stirrer, which was a panning system for moving up to four sounds in space which he had created between 1963-65. Cage called him in February of 1968 and asked him if he could build him an electronic chessboard capable of selecting and diffusing sounds around an audience in a concert hall as a game unfolded. Cross at first declined, politely, because he was swamped with his work at school.
Cage then made his move and said, “Perhaps you will change your mind if I tell you who my chess partner will be.” When Duchamp’s name was dropped it was enough to persuade the assiduous student to get even busier and build what would become the 16-input, 8-output chessboard used in the subsequent performance.
The chessboard had sensors that triggered the electronic music being produced by the musicians according to the way the pieces were moved. The outcome musically was beyond the control of the performers, who each had their own systems and set-ups feeding into the mix. The board was also equipped with contact microphones that picked up the movement of the pieces.
At the performance on March 5th, which kicked of the “Sightsoundsystems” performance series organized by composer Udo Kasmets, the chess players sat and smoked cigarettes and drank wine while the musicians made electronic sounds. The performance lasted for four hours and was a celebration of everyday life as a form of art. Marshall McCluhan was noted to have been in the audience.
It was these kind of collaborative group work situations that Mumma found himself to be drawn to and a part of over and over again. Mumma’s talent as a composer, player, electronics specialist and creative thinker made him an invaluable asset to all the groups and milieus he circulated within and between.
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Read the rest of the Radiophonic Laboratory: Telecommunications, Electronic Music, and the Voice of the Ether.
Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.